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U.S. Schools Getting Better at Boosting Kids' Health

But more is needed to improve nutrition and physical activity, report says


FRIDAY, Oct. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Although U.S. schools have made strides with programs to promote the health and safety of students -- particularly in the areas of nutrition, physical activity and tobacco use -- there's still room for significant improvement.

So says a new report, School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) 2006, issued Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Since the release of the previous SHPPS in 2000, America's schools have made significant progress in removing junk food, offering more physical activity opportunities, and establishing policies that prohibit tobacco use," CDC Director Dr. Julie L. Gerberding said in a prepared statement. "Our goal with this report is to provide health and education officials with useful information that will help them develop and improve programs that can have significant benefit for our school-aged children."

Dr. David Appel, director of the Montefiore Medical Center's School Health Program in New York City, said the report is encouraging, because it shows progress is being made in the push to improve children's health. But childhood obesity remains a major concern, he said.

"This [report] is confirming that the awareness of a huge health problem -- of children growing up overweight -- is beyond people just being told about it, that there's real evidence that action is being taken and momentum is building up."

But, he added, "It's a little humbling to see that the number of schools that are serving water is now up to 46 percent. Why isn't it 100 percent? A lot of the areas where there's progress are areas that need to be 100 percent."

The report, to be published in the October issue of the Journal of School Health, is the third in a series, with the first two conducted in 2000 and 1994. The review is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind. And it covers many issues pertaining to overweight and obesity, which, Appel said, are "becoming the number one problem among school children. I think the health effects of children being overweight will be as great -- or greater -- than the impact of cigarette smoking."

Among the report's findings:

  • The number of states prohibiting junk foods in vending machines in schools rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2006; the percentage of school districts with such prohibitions rose from 4 percent to 30 percent during the same time frame.
  • 46 percent of schools sold water in vending machines or school stores in 2006, up from 30 percent in 2000.
  • 12 percent of states required elementary schools to provide regularly scheduled recesses in 2006, up from 4 percent in 2000; the percentage of school districts with this requirement rose from 46 percent to 57 percent.
  • Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of schools prohibited tobacco use in all school locations, including off-campus, and school-sponsored events in 2006, compared to 46 percent in 2000.
  • 25 percent of schools had vending machines with cookies, cakes and other high-fat baked goods in 2006, versus 38 percent in 2000.
  • Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of schools offered salads a la carte in 2006, compared with 53 percent in 2000.
  • 19 percent of schools offered French fries a la carte in 2006, down from 40 percent in 2000.

That's the good news. The 2006 review also turned up some less-heartening news:

  • Only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools provided daily physical education for the entire year for students in all grades.
  • 22 percent of schools did not require students to take any physical education.
  • 36 percent of schools did not prohibit tobacco use in all locations all the time.
  • 77 percent of high schools still sold drinks that weren't 100 percent juice, and 61 percent sold high-fat salty snacks in vending machines or school stores.

"If we want to build on the improvements that schools have made over the past six years, we need to involve many people and programs," said Howell Wechsler, director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health. "Families, schools, school boards, and school administrators all need to work together to develop and implement policies and programs that promote health and safety among our nation's young people."

Nora Howley is interim executive director of Action for Healthy Kids, a nonprofit organization formed to address the epidemic of overweight, undernourished and sedentary children by focusing on changes at schools. The group's stated goal: "To improve children's nutrition and increase physical activity, which will in turn improve their readiness to learn."

"We are pleased to see the progress that has been made from 2000 to 2006 in the areas of nutrition services and food and beverages served outside of schools," Howley said. "With the local wellness policy mandate, as well as continued state policy development and the work of the thousands of Action for Healthy Kids volunteers across the country and other committed school personnel, parents, and community members, we are confident that progress will continue to be made in these areas, in physical education and other critical areas.

"We are also looking forward to seeing the full report and to continuing to work with CDC and our other partners as well as our volunteers to address the epidemic of overweight, undernourished and sedentary youth and create schools where all kids develop the lifelong habits necessary to promote health and learning."

More information

For more on the report, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) 2006, , Oct. 19, 2007; David Appel, M.D., director, Montefiore Medical Center School Health Program, New York City; Nora Howley, interim executive director, Action for Healthy Kids, Skokie, Ill.; October 2007 Journal of School Health

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